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Amnesty International Report 2021/22

Volume 821: debated on Wednesday 27 April 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of Amnesty International’s Annual Report 2021/22, published on 29 March; and what steps they intend to take in response to the findings about human rights issues (1) globally, and (2) in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, we recognise the huge contribution that civil society, including Amnesty International, makes in promoting respect for human rights and holding Governments to account for their actions. The UK has a long-standing commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights, both internationally and domestically, and we will continue to show global leadership, encouraging all states to uphold international human rights obligations and hold those who violate human rights to account.

I am grateful to the Minister for his ever-courteous response. No country is perfect when it comes to human rights. Is there anything at all in Amnesty’s assessment of the UK position that the Government are looking to improve? Is there a particular priority for the Government in their approach to trying to encourage at least their friendlier international partners to do better on their record?

My Lords, first, I agree with the noble Baroness that the issue and the challenge of human rights is never a job done, whether we are talking globally or domestically. I often say that it is the most challenging part of my portfolio at the FCDO but also the most rewarding. Of course, the United Kingdom Government have prioritised human rights in a range of areas. We will be focusing, for example, on freedom of religion or belief in the conference in July this year. I myself will be leading in the conference on preventing sexual violence in conflict, already brought starkly to all our attention by the conflict in Ukraine. Also, domestically, I think we have a very vibrant civil society space, and I think that needs to be recognised.

On Amnesty International, as the noble Baroness knows, as Human Rights Minister I had a very strong relationship with its previous director, Kate Allen, and we continue to work actively with civil society groups, including my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, who has an advisory group on human rights that works directly with her on this important priority.

My Lords, in this House this week we debated and approved an order which, for the very first time, placed the UAE on a legislative list for high risk of money laundering, fraud and financing of terrorism. The Amnesty report highlighted arbitrary detentions, cruel and inhumane treatment of detainees, suppression of freedom of expression, the undermining of the right to privacy, death sentences and reported executions. I cannot see, in our £10 billion investment partnership with the UAE, any trigger clauses on human rights abuses that could limit market access to the UK. Are there any such clauses in our investment relationships with the UAE that could trigger such a mechanism?

My Lords, our relationship with UAE is very broad, and the noble Lord focused on the investment and business relationship. That is an important aspect of our bilateral engagement, but as the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, just pointed out, no country, including our own, is ever going to complete this journey of human rights. However, we have very positive discussions with the UAE; I have held discussions on various aspects of human rights, including issues of freedom of religion or belief within the context of the UAE and broader. Where there are particular concerns I will raise issues directly, candidly and privately with the UAE administration.

My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that there will be no erosion of the human right to due process, under the rule of law, in prosecutions in the United Kingdom, and particularly that there will continue to be prosecutions for killings in Northern Ireland which occurred during the Troubles where there is evidence to justify prosecution?

My Lords, the United Kingdom prides itself on being a country which upholds the rule of law, both internationally and domestically. Wherever crimes have happened, and wherever there is evidence in support of those crimes, the justice system will ensure that victims get access to justice, and one hopes that justice would be served as quickly as possible. I am proud that I represent on the world stage a country that upholds these values. As I have said before, we are not perfect—no country is—but we have proud traditions and a strong justice system, and that is something I am very proud to extend across the globe.

My Lords, at the annual session of the United Nations Human Rights Council earlier this month, the Minister welcomed the resolution on human rights defenders, who are facing unprecedented restrictions and abuse in every region of the world. The Government’s integrated review set working with human rights defenders and civil society as a priority. Could the Minister tell us what progress has been made on developing a meaningful plan of action to make this commitment a reality? Will the human rights and civil society directorate develop a strategy that addresses these key issues?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to raise the issue of a human rights strategy, particularly on human rights defenders. I pay tribute in this context to Amnesty International, which works with us on developing key aspects of the structures and support that we provide to our network to support human rights defenders. In 2019 we launched the document UK Support for Human Rights Defenders, which sets out in detail how we will engage with human rights defenders to promote and protect human rights throughout the world. I know Amnesty has also talked about a specific government strategy on human rights, and that is something I am considering with officials in the team as part of our broad approach, which includes the international development strategy.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for referencing freedom of religion and belief. Amnesty International’s latest annual report sets out the parliament of Iran’s introduction of two articles to the country’s penal code that further undermine the right to freedom of religion and belief. These articles prescribe up to five years’ imprisonment and/or a fine for insulting Iranian ethnicities, divine religions or Islamic denominations, or for engaging in

“deviant educational or proselytising activity that contradicts … Islam.”

On this basis, three Christians were sentenced to lengthy imprisonments, just last July. I declare an interest in that I am originally from Iran. Could the Minister outline what representations are being made to the Iranian authorities on the matter of freedom of religion and belief?

My Lords, I was present when the right reverend Prelate delivered her maiden speech and reflected on her experiences. She is of great value on the Benches she represents, and on this important issue. Yes, we raise the issue of human rights, and we raise quite candidly and specifically the issues of consular cases which are ongoing in Iran around the broader issue of freedom of religion or belief. I speak as a person of faith: the strongest test of your faith is when you have the ability to stand up and defend the rights and obligations of another belief or faith. That is something we pride ourselves on here in the United Kingdom. Speaking on the broad issue of human rights, it is a proud tradition we carry around the world, and long may it live on.

My Lords, I am sure my noble friend would agree that on this subject there is real concern about many areas of the world. May I single out two? One is Hong Kong and the other is India, where the Prime Minister paid a visit last week and where those who worship according to the Muslim, Christian and other faiths are constantly in a degree of difficulty and often treated abominably. Was the Prime Minister able to raise this? What have we been able to do recently in the context of Hong Kong?

My Lords, first, in Hong Kong, particularly with the introduction of the national security law, the issue is less one of freedom of religion or belief and more one of freedom full stop. The concerns we have in Hong Kong are well documented. We have an extensive support scheme through the BNO scheme, run by the Home Office, and more broadly when it comes to China’s suppression of rights. We see the abuse of freedom of religion most vividly in Xinjiang, and we have led on the Human Rights Council on that aspect. My noble friend also raises India, which is a strong democracy. I am the Minister responsible for our relations with India. As someone of Indian heritage, in part, and as a Muslim by faith, I assure my noble friend that we have very constructive engagement on a broad range of rights. India has a strong constitution and justice system and, within both those processes, the rights of every community, irrespective of faith, are fully protected.

But my Lords, we are talking about Article 18 violations for 1 million Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang and Article 19 violations in Hong Kong—the denial of media and press freedoms. What can the noble Lord say to us about the position we take in the United Nations Human Rights Council, of which China is also a member? When do we hold it to account on these violations? Which of the 30 articles in the 1948 convention—the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—is China not in breach of?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s second question, I would hazard a guess and say that, regrettably and tragically, most if not all may have been breached when it comes to the application of human rights in China. On the earlier point about the situation of the Uighurs, as I have already said, we have led the way on the Human Rights Council. It has not been easy; it has been challenging. However, the fact is that on every vote we have had at the Human Rights Council we have had an increasing number of countries supporting the position that the United Kingdom has led on. There is an egregious abuse of human rights in Xinjiang, for not just the Muslim Uighur community but other minorities as well.